My First Two Weeks Of Fatherhood

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My decades of being single came to a rather abrupt end on November 3rd.  Two people, a mother and son, arrived at JFK after a trip around the world and our lives will never be the same.  

A few years ago, I was worried about how it may be to be a stepfather and hoped Charlotte’s son, CJ Y-dran, would accept me.  One day, soon after this thought, and out of the blue, Y-dran told his mom he had something that he wanted to ask me.  

The voice on the other end of the video call gave me the assurance that I needed:

“Can I call you daddy?”

Crazy, right?

More amazingly, after I told him he could, he asked if we could pray together.  That was, of course, another request granted and the whole thing a wonderful confirmation.  But, that said, it is one thing to be called “daddy” and another to be a good father.

CJ Y-dran is now ten years old.  

A Crash Course In Parenting Begins

Saturday, after our arrival together in central Pennsylvania, we visited Ed and Judy, my aunt and uncle.  Ed surprised us with an early Christmas gift by getting Uriah’s bike out and offering it to Y-dran.  

It was fun to see a young boy’s face light up in amazement.  Y-dran rode around happily while we all enjoyed the unseasonally warm weather.  Later we were able to secure the bike in the trunk of my car and then brought it home.

It was the first Monday back to work after the trip to the airport and I was just settling in for the day when a message notification popped up.  It was Y-dran.  What did Y-dran want at this early hour of the day?

“I cen not bike naw”

“Becos momi not let me”

“Lets pot it back to ante”

“I can not yos it”

Uhoh.  

Unwittingly, having missed some details he had included, namely that he was allowed to ride albeit only in the yard, I answered him exactly as his mom did and said he could ride in the yard and only in the alley after I was home from work.  So it was great to be on the same page with his mother.

The Knife At School Incident

Y-dran found a small Leatherman-type tool in my utility drawer and was fascinated. He wanted to whittle away at the banister, which was immediately discouraged, and directed to a cardboard box to satisfy his stabbing need.

Boys love tools and especially tools used as weapons.

The blades on this multi-tool were too small to be lethal and yet were enough to keep a ten-year-old’s imagination captive.

But, when I discovered this tool in his backpack after coming home from his fourth day in school, I very quickly gave a stern warning to never ever bring a knife to school. I took the tool and returned it to the drawer to emphasize the point.

It was around nineteen hours later, at my desk during lunch, when I got that dreaded phone call from the school office. It was the principal. He told me Y-dran was in his office and went on to say how my son was displaying a knife to classmates.

The irony of this situation struck me. I had bought a house and moved across the river, in anticipation of Y-dran’s arrival, and the thought of him being expelled in the first week was not one that I had entertained until this moment.

Making matters worse, when confronted by his teacher about this, Y-dran, thinking he was helping himself, he tried to justify carrying the bladed instrument and claimed it was for self-defense.

In his defense, his citing potential “kidnappers” as a reason to be armed is not completely without cause. In his home country that is something that parents are concerned about given stories of human trafficking and thus part of his own thought process.

However, this explanation was also more incriminating than had he just kept his mouth shut or said he just thought it was a fun thing to play with. Never give away intent like that! /Facepalm

Fortunately, while having a zero-tolerance policy, they didn’t do like they did to a co-worker’s grandson, also a 5th-grader, who was not only expelled from his elementary school but was also fined and had a court date—all for having a knife discovered by other students rifling through his backpack!

Lord have mercy!

The real dilemma for me, after learning that this wasn’t going to be taken further than reprimand and confiscation of the tool (which I told the principal to dispose of rather than hold for me to retrieve), was how to handle this at home.

I wasn’t sure that I should involve his mom or just take him aside and tell him that I would keep his secret so long as it didn’t ever happen again.

Thankfully, returning after work, I didn’t have to decide. Y-dran had already confessed to all believing that I would eventually spill the beans on him anyways.

I really need to teach this kid how to read the room better.

What Have I Learned About Fatherhood?

The first thing I have to come to terms with is that I’ll make mistakes. Right now everything has been so new and uncharted that there is no way for me to map my progress.

He is a handful. He weighs as much as I did when I graduated from high school and has the tenacity of a rabid gorilla too. He just does not stop when he gets going. But then he’s also appropriately gentle with younger children and, despite some wildness, has a great heart underneath it all.

Things have gone relatively well so far.

Still, I keep thinking of the verse:

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

(Ephesians 6:4 NIV)

The KJV may say it better using the words “provoke not your children to wrath,” but what does this Biblical commandment truly mean in practical terms. Does it mean I give him everything he wants to keep him from being angry or upset? What exactly is the training and instruction of the Lord?

Y-dran can be very persistent. When we’re out shopping he seems to feel entitled to a sugary drink or whatever else he can grab from the shelves. What he does not realize is that this constant pestering, needing to even be in control of what gifts he gets at Christmas, really takes the joy out of giving and makes us less likely to oblige the request.

I suppose there is no systemic or cut-and-dried answer to these things. It isn’t about balancing either. It takes wisdom, and putting them first (that doesn’t come easy), to gain and keep the credibility required to guide a son. Children see our inconsistencies. He will tell me if I look at my cell phone at the table or forget the prayer before we eat. He’ll know if I care about him or not.

Maybe the more important thing is to realize that I don’t know what I’m doing and can only do my best. My success or failure as a parent will not be a product of my perfection. I mean, even if I could check all of the right boxes and make no mistakes, that does not mean he’ll be reasonable or accept that as enough, right?

I’ll try to be consistent, to give him the best opportunities and all the good for him that I am able to do. But, ultimately, I’ll fail as a father if it is all about my own effort. In the end, I can only depend on the grace of God (generous uncles and lenient principals) to even have the slightest chance.  Otherwise, I’m already well over my head without any hope. 

The Need For Faithful Fathers

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My memory is, generally speaking, an amorphous soup—don’t expect me to remember your name, important historical dates, or even specific events from my childhood.

However, I can remember particular moments with my father and some of those memories remain quite vivid. One such memory was of a day where I joined him on a job site. I have no idea how old I was. I was a toddler. My dad must’ve had some work up top to do. He could not leave me down below to fend for myself alone. And, therefore, I had to up with him.

So he hoisted me to his back and proceeded to climb those rebar rungs with me hanging on for dear life. I was terrified of heights even as a child. And, even if I was able to someone overcome my fears, I was too young to climb that ladder on my own at that stage. Anyhow, as tightly as I held onto his neck, he’s lucky I didn’t chock him out.

My dad was a construction worker. He built concrete silos (later water tower pedestals and smoke stacks) and as early as I can remember he was always the man in charge. He worked faithfully, out on the road for the first fifteen years of my life, to provide for my mom and us children.

This lanky “hard hat,” a big hammer in the metal loop of his leather work belt, oil and ‘mud’ splattered on his pants and T-shirt, defined manhood for me.

What would my life would have been like without my father?

I’ve recently pondered that question.

My life is completely intertwined in my father’s, determining where his influence begins or ends is impossible.

Would I have had interest in engineering and design had he not brought home blueprints?

My preferences are tied to his.

For example, and another of those childhood memories, my ride in dad’s 1969 Mach 1 Mustang (a wonderful machine powered by a rare “428 CJ” engine with a “shaker” hood scoop) and the impact it had.

It wasn’t actually his car anymore, he had sold it to his brother so he could buy a family car, and I only ever had one ride. But how could I ever forget that lopey idle giving way to a roar as that big block took a deep breath of atmosphere and gasoline?

I was pinned, wide-eyed, to the bucket seat. We accelerated to what seemed like takeoff velocity down that country road and then, when we were turning around, after the most incredible experience of my life to that point, my dad says, “Hmm, it seems to be missing…”

What!?!

It wasn’t even running right and it had redefined my understanding of physics!

Perhaps I would have been a motor head regardless—still there is little doubt that my expectations were formed, in large part, by the loyalties and interests of my father. I’ve only owned Ford powered vehicles. Love for machines is one thing that we share in common, being allowed to drive at a young age was likely a factor in later career choices, and that just one of many things that I owe to my dad’s presence in my life.

As with all hypothetical “what if” senarios, we can really only know what we have experienced and thus I cannot know what I would be without my father’s example. But undoubtedly my dad, being a good and responsible man, one who cared for those who worked under him enough to be at odds with upper management, was a role model for me.

Having no father figure correlates with many problems…

I do not know what I would be had my father decided he was not ready for a family and left. But I have reason to suspect that I would not be better off without him.

There is a strong correlation between absent fathers and poor outcomes in children. Arguably fatherlessness is a more reliable predictor of outcomes than economic status or race. An article about links between fatherlessness and violence in the Baltimore Sun drives home the point:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, children living without fathers have a 400 percent increased chance of being poor. Only about one-tenth of children living with both parents are living in poverty. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also states that drug and alcohol abuse is far greater among children living without fathers.

Again, statistics cannot tell us anything about individuals. There are many very successful men raised in single parent homes and ultimately every individual must choose how to play the hand they’ve been dealt. One can use their own disadvantages (perceived or real) as an excuse not to try or they can overcome and use their experience as a strength.

That said, I was privileged to have two parents, both respectable people, and I have a great deal of gratitude for my father’s choice to remain faithful to my mother and us children.

“Do I have a reason to hate dad?”

I asked my brother that the other day because I was genuinely perplexed as to why there seemed to be anger in my heart towards my dad.

Our minds are complex and thus, even after years of trying to figure out my own mind, understanding how or why my feelings come and go as they do remains a mystery beyond my grasp.

However, no man is perfect and my dad was not without his flaws. And, unlike my younger siblings, I’ve seen him grow up from obnoxious, insecure and sarcastic young man (who would rudely correct my mom’s occasional mispronunciations) to the current gentler wiser version.

My dad is a high school dropout. He was, for the most part, missing the first fifteen years of my life, out on the road working, busy around the house or exhausted. He didn’t play sports. He has never owned his own business, he was never ordained in the church, and for that reason could not pass on the pedigree to his son.

I’ve tried to take responsibility and not blame him for my own failures in romance or otherwise. Still, it only stands to reason that parental influence goes two ways, both good and bad. And, after dropping out of college (due to lack of funds and fear of debt) being out on the road seemed like a curse passed down to me from my father—a fate that I could not escape

Besides that, I couldn’t even complete with my dad in his many areas of strength. It seems my genetic inheritance in some important areas (like physical stature and personality) came from mom. We would often be at odds, me constantly asking “why” as a child and him getting frustrated with my too many questions.

I’m very different from my father and differences often lead to conflict. I’ve spent many years simultaneously respecting and also resenting of my father. While my dad, a quiet man, has offered much in the way of encouragement and praise—all of that can be outweighed by just one of his sighs, eye rolls, or other signs of disgust.

I don’t hate my dad. But there are definitely some areas where I hope to improve upon the foundation he gave me. A man who wants to maintain his status quo, who avoids tedious discussion and theological debates, doesn’t have much to offer in terms of growth in perspective. There are simply limits to how far his guidance can take me.

My longing for acceptance and fatherly pursuits…

A remarkable number of the girls I’ve had serious interest in over the years were daughters of missionaries or pastors. This was not something conscious or intentional on my part, but it seems to be indication of a deeper level awareness of my own limitations and desire to overcome.

Interestingly enough, my dad’s family has many who have traveled the world and are ordained leaders in the church. But my dad was not, he is not noteworthy as a teacher (although he has much to offer) and really could not provide an example to follow in that regard. So, as a result, I had to look outside of my own father’s example and sought someone who would help me.

My pursuit of the impossibly was as much a pursuit of a father’s approval as it was anything else. The man, whose daughter I sought friendship with, had embodied the Mennonite ideal to me and I desired his mentorship as much as his recommendation of me. Unfortunately that was not a role he was willing to fulfill and, frankly, no conservative Mennonite man I’ve met is interested in taking up.

In the Mennonite world fatherhood is reserved for the biological realm. A man feels only responsible for the welfare (spiritual or otherwise) of his own biological children and all others should go to their own parents. What I was asking for, a real mentor and advocate like a parent, was beyond their realm of possibilities—my own deficiencies were tough luck and not their problem.

If there was a time when Mennonite leaders were more open to mentoring and discipling those not their own biological children, that passed with the encroachment of individualism and the abandoning of the Anabaptist community ethic (still alive in Old Order groups) for my-family-first homeschooling cultural and patriarchalism.

A father like Paul was to Onesimus…

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 1:8‭-‬11 NIV)

Paul’s intercession on behalf of Onesimus, in the passage above, is the kind of fatherhood missing in my Mennonite experience and is something desperately needed in the church.

Onesimus wasn’t Paul’s biological son. But it is obvious that there was a depth of commitment there that went beyond talking after church on Sunday, saying “I’ll pray for you” or a few token gestures. No, Paul was clearly fulfilling a fatherly role for Onesimus and willing to be an advocate for him.

The idea of fatherhood in the church, of spiritual fathers, is something foreign to many Protestants and is a concept often met with resistance. Some would take the words of Jesus “do not call anyone on earth ‘father'” (Matthew 23:9) as a strict prohibition against a use of the term to describe a church leader. But I believe, in their legalistic approach, they are missing the point Jesus is making and forgetting that Jesus himself used the term “fathers” to describe Jewish ancestors.

It doesn’t take long, reading the New Testament, to see that the most literal interpretation of what Jesus said in his sermon against religious hypocrisy was not meant to abolish use of a term. If it was, then early church leaders, the same that gave us the Scripture, would be in direct violation to the rule and condemned by the words of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament frequently referred to other Christians as their “children” and most certainly took a fatherly role:

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14‭-‬17 NIV )

Onesimus was a slave, perhaps born into slavery, and Paul became a father to him—who freed him from both spiritual and physical bondage. That is the kind of fatherhood we need in the church.

Meeting a father…

When I first met Fr. Anthony I was curious about many things and, noting their use of a church calendar, had asked the him if the Orthodox had a day to commemorate the prophet Joel. He wrote me the very next day to tell me that the prophet Joel was on the calendar that day, an interesting coincidence, and that was the beginning of a relationship that eventually led me to the Orthodox church. Fr. Anthony’s humility (despite his academic credentials and being an encyclopedia of knowledge) and willingness to carefully answer questions was something that spoke volumes to me.

There is little doubt in my mind that Fr. Anthony is the reason why Orthodoxy was the direction I went after my Mennonite ideal disintegrated. I know very humble Mennonite leaders, I also know many who are somewhat knowledgeable as well, I have great respect for men like Frank Reed, for example, but somehow Fr. Anthony had all the right answers for my needs. Many ex-Mennonites had tried to convince me to join them and only made me upset, but Fr. Anthony explained in a way that both validated my Mennonite ideal and also took me beyond it.

My biological father is a very good man. I am privileged to be his son and grateful of his example. I could not possibly be where I am today without his faithfulness.

However, my dad is not a philosopher nor interested in many of the questions I would ask and thus left a void to be filled. My prayers for a fatherly mentor went unanswered in the Mennonite church and it is only in a journey of faith that took me beyond Mennonite possibilities that I’ve found a father in the way Paul was to Onesimus.

There are many in the church lacking good fathers and many good fathers who hoard their abilities for only their biological children. Even those who have good fathers could benefit from a concept of fatherhood that revolved around Christian faith and not only what is natural default. The church needs leaders willing to take a true fatherly role. We need men who will love, disciple and be spiritual fathers to all in need.

Do you love God’s children as much as you love your own?